Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard

(April 24, 1775 – July 5, 1838)
French Physician

Portugees version



  • Educated from youth to be a tradesman
  • “On the job” medical training during the French Revolution
  • Surgical Internship (1796)


  • Hospital Surgeon, Toulon, France (1796)
  • Chief Physician, National Institution for Deaf-Mutes, Paris (1800-?)
  • His work with “The wild boy of Aveyron” lead to his being honored by the French Academy of Science

Definition of Intelligence

“If we consider human intelligence at the period of earliest childhood man does not yet appear to rise above the level of the other animals. All his intellectual faculties are strictly confined to the narrow circle of his physical needs. It is upon himself alone that the operations of his mind are exercised. Education must then seize them and apply them to his instruction, that is to say to a new order of things which has no connection with his first needs. Such is the source of all knowledge, all mental progress, and the creations of the most sublime genius. Whatever degree of probability there may be in this idea, I only repeat it here as the point of departure on the path towards realization of this last aim” (Itard, 1801/1962).

Major Contributions

  • Founder of oto-rhyno-laryngology
  • Teacher of the child known as “The Wild Boy of Aveyron”
  • Patriarch of special education
  • Influenced the work of his pupil, Dr. Eduard Séguin, who in turn influenced his pupil, Maria Montessori

Ideas and Interests

Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard was educated to be a tradesman, but during the French Revolution he joined the army and became an assistant surgeon at a military hospital in Toulon. He had no scientific training and received his medical education “on the job” (Gaynor, 1973; Pinchot, 1948). He demonstrated considerable talent for medicine, and in 1796 he began a formal surgical internship Paris. In 1800 he was appointed Chief Physician at the National Institution for Deaf-Mutes in Paris. His accomplishments in this capacity were numerous: He wrote a seminal book on diseases of the ear, invented a eustachian catheter (now known as “Itard’s Catheter”) and devised several new methods for educating and treating the deaf. His work with the child known as “The Wild Boy of Aveyron” earned him an international reputation, and he is recognized today as one of the founding fathers of special education (Gaynor, 1973; Humphrey, 1962).

In 1799 three French sportsmen were exploring a wood in southern France when they came upon a young boy. They guessed that he was eleven or twelve years old, and he was filthy, naked, and covered with scars. The boy ran from them, but he was caught when he stopped to climb a tree. The sportsmen brought him to a nearby village and gave him over into the care of a widow. As the story of his capture spread, local residents began reporting that a young naked boy had been seen in the woods five years earlier. It was presumed that he had lived alone for many years, and that he had survived by eating whatever he could find or catch (Itard, 1801/1962).

The boy escaped from the widow, and spent the next winter roaming the woods alone. He was eventually recaptured and placed in safe custodial care. An official in the French government heard about him, and suggested that he be taken to Paris where he could be studied as an example of the human mind in its primitive state (Itard, 1801/1962). However, the prominent Parisian physicians who examined him declared that he was not “wild” at all; their collective opinion was that the boy was mentally deficient, and that he had been recently abandoned by his parents. The famous psychiatrist Philippe Pinel put it succinctly when he said that the boy was in fact “an incurable idiot” (Gaynor, 1973).

Itard disagreed. He believed that the boy had survived alone in the woods for at least seven years, citing as evidence his “profound aversion to society, its customs, and its artifacts” (Itard, 1801/1962). He asserted that his apparent mental deficiency was entirely due to a lack of human interaction. Moreover, he believed that this could be overcome. He brought the boy-whom he eventually named “Victor”–to The National Institution for Deaf-Mutes, and devoted the next five years to an intensive, individualized educational program (Humphrey, 1962; French, 2000). This was the first example of an IEP, and the beginning of modern special education (Gaynor, 1973; Humphrey, 1963; Pinchot, 1948).

Itard identified five primary goals for his pupil:
1. To interest him in social life
2. To improve his awareness of environmental stimuli
3. To extend the range of his ideas (e.g. introduce him to games, culture, etc.)
4. To teach him to speak
5. To teach him to communicate by using symbol systems, such as pictures and written words

Itard had been influenced by the empiricist philosophers John Locke and Etienne Condillac, both of whom advanced the idea that all knowledge comes through the senses. Victor’s eyesight and hearing were normal, but his responses to sensory input were often sluggish or nonexistent. For example, he would perk up at the slightest sound of a nutshell cracking, but would not startle at the sound of a gunshot. Itard reasoned that Victor could not learn effectively until he became more attuned to his environment. Therefore, his educational approach relied heavily on sensory-training and stimulation. (Humphrey, 1962; Itard, 1801/1962).

Victor improved, but he never approached normalcy. After five years he could read and speak a few words, demonstrated affection for his caretakers, and could carry out simple commands. Itard was disappointed in this lack of progress, but he maintained his environmentalist position, stating that would have been successful if Victor had been a few years younger. (Pinchot, 1948). As it turns out, Philippe Pinel and the other physicians were probably right; modern readers of Itard’s personal account usually come to the conclusion that Victor was indeed mentally retarded or autistic (French, 2000; Humphrey, 1962; Pinchot, 1948).

The fact that Itard failed to make Victor “normal” is relatively unimportant to this story. The important thing is that he tried. He was the first physician to declare that an enriched environment could compensate for developmental delays caused by heredity or previous deprivation (French, 2000). Up to this time, it had been assumed that mentally retarded people were uneducable (Humphrey, 1962). As one writer put it, Itard’s work with Victor “did away with the paralyzing sense of hopelessness and inertia that had kept the medical profession and everybody else from trying to do anything constructive for mental defectives” (Kanner, 1967).

Itard’s influence was further extended through the work of his pupil, Eduard Séguin. Séguin improved and expanded his teacher’s sensory-training approach, and put it into practice in special schools for retarded students. He earned fame both in Europe and abroad for his nonverbal intelligence test, which also had its roots in Itard’s work (French, 2000; Humphrey, 1962; Kanner, 1967). Maria Montessori developed her methods in large part by modifying Séguin’s educational approach. Through her, Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard has had an impact on thousands of normally developing schoolchildren all over the world (Frankel, et al., 1975; French, 2000; Humphrey, 1962)

Selected Publications

Itard, J.M.G. (1962). The wild boy of Aveyron. (G. Humphrey & M. Humphrey, Trans.). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts. (Original works published 1801 and 1806).


Frankel, M.G., Happ, F.W. & Smith, M.P. (1975). The relation of historical and contemporary theories to functional Teaching. In Functional teaching of the mentally retarded. Springfield, Ill: Charles C Thomas.

French, J.E. (2000). Itard, Jean-Marie-Gaspard. In A.E. Kazdin, (Ed.) Encyclopedia of psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gaynor, J.F. (1973). The “failure” of J.M.G. Itard. Journal of Special Education, 7(4), 439-445.

Humphrey, G. (1962). Introduction. In J.M.G. Itard (Au.). The wild boy of Aveyron. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Kanner, L. (1967). Medicine in the history of mental retardation. American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 72(2), 165-170.

Pinchot, P. (1948). French pioneers in the field of mental deficiency. American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 3(1), 128-137.

Photo Courtesy of The National Library of Medicine